‘People People’ Work at Home, Too

By Euan Hutchinson Sep 1, 2008
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How can HR professionals, known for being employee-centered, operate from the isolation of their own homes? Quite well, actually.

Significant, dramatic change—the kind that can make even a strong executive’s head spin—has been a constant at Pitney Bowes for most of this young century. An ongoing course correction that began in 2001 has seen the company refocus on its core competency—mail finishing—by divesting peripheral business lines and acquiring more than 80 other companies in relevant operations.

When other human resource professionals ask me what it’s like working at home, I tell them this: It doesn’t suit every person and doesn’t necessarily suit every job, but when it’s right for both, working from home works really well.

As rewards director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa for HP—Hewlett-Packard Co., as it has long been known—I lead a team of about 40 rewards professionals who supervise and manage compensation and benefits programs across the region. We support regular full-time employees in approximately 53 countries.

Some people on my team work at a regional level; others are assigned to individual countries or clusters of countries. They normally work in teams of about five or six specialists, including program managers, compensation experts and benefits specialists.

I’ve been working out of my house in Glasgow, Scotland, for about four years. I originally chose to work from home because of the changing nature of my role, a difficult commute and a blessing—the birth of our second son.

Telecommuting by the Numbers (click to view)I set aside a dedicated room as my home office. I have an ergonomically designed desk and chair provided by HP, a dedicated business phone and broadband Internet line, a laptop, a printer, and a cell phone. HP takes health and safety seriously, so when I initially inquired about working remotely, I had to go through a rigorous process with numerous checklists to ensure that the equipment complied with requirements.

My wife, Suzanne, is a full-time mum, and we have sons ages 6, 4 and 3. The boys have learned that when I’m in that room, I am working. Yet that prohibition does not stop the occasional picture or note from being pushed under the door, and they know they can get to me if it is important.

One son’s school lies no more than a block down the road, and another son’s preschool is the same distance in the opposite direction. I’m in the fortunate position of being able to take 10 minutes, as work permits, and pick them up. I’m well aware that few working parents can do this; it’s a privilege and a benefit.

My workday is regimented yet flexible. I never fail to be at my desk by 8 a.m. after helping with the family’s morning routine. After a short walk upstairs, I am at my desk and logged on. I take a brief lunch break with the family—maybe even a five-minute soccer kick-about with my sons—and then I am back at my desk. When I surface again around 6 p.m., I am with family 30 seconds later.

People often ask whether the distractions of home are too tempting. Creating a viable work structure around a home office requires discipline and integrity. I control interruptions, and I am more productive and disciplined at home than I would be in an office. HP and my manager trust me; I repay that.

If there is any downside to my arrangement, it is that my computer stays on when I go downstairs. I find myself checking in during the evening as—given my location in Europe—U.S. colleagues continue to send questions and project updates via e-mail. It takes discipline to shut the door and leave work until the next morning, but with my role, there has to be some give-and-take. For me, this is an OK trade-off for all the upsides to working from home.

So how do I lead my team while working remotely? In a typical day, I will:

  • Meet with direct reports via conference calls on setting and achieving goals.
  • Work with them and with peers and customers on special business projects.
  • Engage in resolving country-specific issues about the ways we manage rewards.
  • Serve as a global project team leader for our total rewards communication and education center.
  • Keep key stakeholders, including my manager, the regional vice president of human resources, and my “dotted-line” global compensation and benefits leader, up-to-date on specific projects we drive to support the business or on specific country challenges that we need to overcome.
  • Communicate with internal customers such as business group leaders or HR business partners.

All of that work generally gets done by phone or e-mail. Hence, knowing the art of communication, spoken and written, becomes a must. Of course, at times I would prefer to interact in person about a topic, but making business move forward and putting across convincing arguments and messages virtually has become natural for me.

That does not make it easy, however. Creating, leading and managing a high-performing team virtually requires skills on top of those required in a normal line manager’s role. Your tools are your voice, your tone, your passion and your enthusiasm, all of which need to transcend phone lines and geographic and cultural boundaries.

Other challenges are cultural sensitivity and time management. I’m often on the phone 40 percent to 90 percent of the day. This operational style requires cultural sensitivity. It is a particular art to form meaningful relationships of trust with people you haven’t met who come from a diversity of cultures and backgrounds.

In addition, sometimes my diary fills with conference calls back-to-back for as long as seven hours straight, resulting in the challenge of having to switch my brain from one subject to another in a matter of 60 seconds—not something you’d necessarily do in an office environment.

I have met all of my team members at all-team meetings. These intense and exhilarating experiences offer rare opportunities for me to stamp my leadership mark on the team and for people to meet the man behind the voice. They give the team fresh impetus and energy to drive forward.

I supplement occasions like this with smaller meetings, talking with people individually and getting to know them as individuals. I am thankful to have great team members who share my passion and enthusiasm for people management. They all strive to make our team a great place to work.

So, would this work for you? Some people need the buzz, the structure and the social engagement of the office environment. Some roles in HR—and in every organization—require personal intervention to add value.

I am just grateful to be working at a company where core principles include employee trust and management by delivery—where I am measured on the results I deliver and how I deliver them. Without those principles, my work arrangement and the arrangements of many others would not be able to flourish and add value for HP.

The author is rewards director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa for HP—formally, Hewlett-Packard Co.—the information technology giant headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif. He is based in Glasgow, Scotland.

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